It’s 5 a.m., dark and very cold (-5), yet I’ve dragged my butt out of bed to rendezvous with Rocky Connell at Park Avenue Bakery in Helena. He greets me with a chuckle and says “you’re late.” Connell, who has been at the bakery since November 2017, starts his day at 3:30 a.m.
Owners Renee and John Kowalski were searching for a baker to inject new life into the quality of the various breads, baguettes and rolls, as well as increase production and efficiency. Connell is the man making a difference.
Connell got his start learning to bake bread at Poet Street Market in Billings many years ago. He would end up at a few bakeries in Bozeman before heading down to Florida to pursue his other passion, animal psychology, especially as it relates to raptors. Both Connell and his son are falconers. As it happens with native Montanans, he missed home and found his way to Helena on news of a job opening at the bakery. It was the right fit, given that Helena is home to Montana Wild, a center for helping to rehabilitate all sorts of wildlife. When time allows, his plan is to continue working with the eagles at the facility.
I’m watching Connell work his magic with dough. As he pulls the dough up and folds it over on itself, he explains he is stretching and laminating layers of gluten, which will give his baguette its strength. With a clear sense of contentment, he says “there is something about having your hands in the dough that is so relaxing. You have to let bread guide the way.” He explains that many factors affect the outcome of bread — ingredients, temperature, water, fermentation and the way dough is worked.
“I’m always chasing the perfect baguette, striving for the one that melts in your mouth and the one you can’t stop eating,” Connell said.
I asked Connell if he calls himself an artist or if he considers baking an art.
He responded by sharing this quote from Jeffrey Hamelman: “One asks, is the baker an artist? An artisan? These days artisan and baker are often combined into one term as if the unadorned noun baker needs further enhancement. To me, the baker is certainly no artist, for an artist creates something new: This is the domain of poets and painters. The skilled baker, working with his hands, doing the same work each day, takes his place with the artisans of history: the potters, coopers, carpenters, and smiths. His work may excel and reach toward perfection, but there is little, really, that is new for the bread baker to invent … The baker, each day, tries to perfect something that was worked out hundreds of years ago …
“When it all goes just right (which it rarely does), and the day's bread have attained more than just good taste, but are, for that day, memorable and charismatic, then the baker knows again why he sets his alarm for that challenging hour. And when all has not come out of the oven just as he had wished or expected, he gets another chance tomorrow — each day we have the opportunity to redeem the setbacks of yesterday.”
It takes many hands working like a well-oiled piece of machinery to create all the goodness that finds its way onto the shelves at the bakery every morning. There is a variety of bread, including baguettes, ciabatta, 8 grain and old world Italian loaves, to name a few. New breads are coming out weekly, focusing on whole and ancient grains. For the sweet tooth, temptations include caramel and cinnamon rolls, scones, croissants, cookies and shortbread. Then there are the fabulous desserts.
Park Avenue Bakery has gained a reputation for being the go-to place in Helena for exquisite desserts, thanks to general manager and pastry chef Melanie Hahlbohm. She is the master of edible and delicious works of art, including Earl Gray Triangles, Grand Marnier Triple Chocolate Mouse Bombe, Mini Lemon Delights and Exotic Prickly Pear Bombes. Her infectious smile makes me want to hang with her and learn some cake decorating techniques. She insists I taste her Lavender Pistachio Dream Cake, served up with a steaming latte. Wow is all I can say about the 10 layered beauty. Connell is quick to point out that Hahlbohm has set the bar high for the quality of baked goods that make it to the shelves, as well as creating an atmosphere of content employees.
I head home with Connell's latest creation, a Black 'n Brie baguette (the black comes from a small amount of edible charcoal). Killer good! But don’t take my word for it. Make a point of stopping at Park Avenue Bakery and treating yourself to some homemade goodness.
Better yet, make it a lunch stop and try out their homemade soups, pizza and sandwiches. You’ll also find Park Avenue Bakery rolls for sale at Helena’s Real Food Market & Deli and Van's. Some of Helena’s restaurants feature the bakery’s bread as well, including On Broadway, Lucca’s, The Hub and Bad Betty’s Barbecue.